Bexley

There was a village at Bexley by the beginning of the ninth century, which isn’t too surprising as it’s just off a road that’s older than the Romans.

Crook Log, Bexleyheath, around 1905

It isn’t clear how old Bexley actually is. Some websites claim that it dates back to at least the fifth century, or that it was “first recorded” as “Bixle” around 780 AD. The sources of these claims are unclear, but it isn’t at all impossible that Bexley is that old, and indeed older. It sits south of Watling Street, which of course is a Roman road, but actually, and certainly on this part of it, is older than that, having been used as a road by the ancient Britons long before the Romans ever turned up.

Bexley High Street, early 20th century

In fact, Watling Street is far from being the only ancient road in these parts. Bexley High Street was part of a track that ran from Eltham to Dartford along Parkhill Road and Vicarage Road, and another one that ran from Crayford to Orpington along Bourne Road and North Cray Road. They met here for a good reason: a ford across the River Cray at pretty much the same place where Bexley High Street crosses it to this day.

King Coenwulf of Mercia

Bexley’s name, at any rate, is Anglo-Saxon. Most sources agree the name means a clearing in a wood of box trees, although some argue that the land would have been unsuitable for box trees, and that Bexley actually takes its name from the bec (stream, meaning the River Cray) which flows through it. It first appears, spelt “Byxlea”, in a document dated (possibly falsely) 814 AD, in which King Coenwulf (Kenulph) of Mercia – the kingdom in control of the London area at the time – gave ten sulungs of land here (about 1,200 acres), complete with swine pastures, to the archbishop of Canterbury.

Peter Leadbeater’s Hurricane sculpture
(photo by Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The southeastern edge of that land was a defensive dyke called the Fæsten Dic, which then marked Mercia’s border with Kent. You can still see the Fæsten Dic today, southeast of Bexley in Joyden's Wood, but the county boundary has since migrated the west, leaving the dyke marooned 300 yards (or metres) inside Kent. It was previously thought that the Romanized Celts of London had built the Fæsten Dic to keep out the Anglo-Saxons (Jutes, in fact) of Kent, but modern scholarly opinion is that it was probably the kings of Kent who had it built to make and defend a border against the kings of Wessex or Mercia (whichever controlled London at the time). None the less, a wooden statue of a Roman soldier and one of an Anglo-Saxon warrior by chainsaw sculptor Peter Leadbeater, originally facing each other across the dyke, were installed here in 2012 to commemorate the imagined London–Kent stand-off. Leadbeater also made a sculpture of a Hawker Hurricane fighter plane to commemorate one which crashed here during the Battle of Britain (the pilot bailed out and survived, but was killed in action just eight days later).


Hall Place (photo by John K Thorne)

The archbishop’s land became a manor, and by the time William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday Book in 1085, it had three working mills. One of them, a watermill, on the river survived (not necessarily in its original form) until 1966, when it burnt down and was rebuilt as a chain pub, now converted into flats. Former London lord mayor John Champneys commissioned a stately home at Hall Place in 1537, which still stands today. It was built using materials recycled from Lesnes Abbey, one of the first monasteries closed by Henry VIII in the Reformation. During the Second World War it was a Y Station, used for intercepting German radio messages, which were then sent to Bletchley Park to decrypt.

St Mary’s church spire
(photo by P Ingerson)

Bexley’s parish church, St Mary’s, with its unusual cone-on-a-pyramid spire, dates back to at least the eleventh century, but there has probably been a church on the site since Anglo-Saxon times. It’s been altered, restored and expanded several times, and most of what you see there today dates from its last big refurbishment in 1883. The oldest pub in Bexley is the King’s Head on the High Street, which probably dates back to around the sixteenth century.

Bexleyheath Clocktower
(photo by Ewan Munro,
CC BY-SA 2.0)

Straddling Watling Street, part of which forms its Broadway, Bexleyheath was a heath (as its name suggests) until 1814, when most of it was “enclosed” (ie, seized by landowners). To its west, Danson Park belonged to sugar baron John Boyd, whose wealth was made by the slaves on his Caribbean plantations. His mansion, Danson House, was built in the park in 1768. The heath was gradually built over in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, becoming the suburb we know today. Not far from Danson Park, in what was once the village of Upton, the Red House was built in 1859 for the artist, designer and utopian socialist William Morris, who lived in it until 1865, when he sold up and moved into town. The clocktower on Bexleyheath Broadway (by the market place) was put up in 1912 to commemorate the coronation of King George V.

Bexley station (by Sunil060902, CC BY-SA 3.0)

1866 saw the arrival of the railway, and Bexley’s wooden clapboard station building is still the original one from that time. It’s always had a large forecourt, originally so that horse-drawn carriages could turn in it.

Bexley civic offices, formerly with the Woolwich
(photo by E Gammie, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The parish of Bexley got a local council in 1879, which became an urban district council in 1894, and a borough in 1935. It was part of Kent until 1965, when it was merged with Erith, Crayford and Sidcup to form the London Borough of Bexley. But many of its older residents still consider it part of Kent, and it still has a Dartford postcode (DA5). Assorted pen-pushers keep trying to rebrand it as “Old Bexley” or “Bexley Village” to distinguish it from the larger borough. The civic offices on the corner of Watling Street and Erith Road were previously the headquarters of the Woolwich Building Society. The society was swallowed up by a bank in 2000, and it’s HQ was taken over by Bexley council in 2014.